“Michel’s down,” I said, as soon as all of the lines were connected. “He’s bleeding and I think something happened to his throat. We need to get him out of here.”
Mila responded first. “Where are you? How do you know that?”
“I’m inside the building,” I said. “The details don’t matter. Where are you and can you get here to help me with him?”
“I’ve got a location on her earbud,” Max offered. “She’s on the other side of the building, but she can cut through some back rooms to get to where you are in a few minutes.”
“On it,” Mila said.
“Devlin?” I waited for a few seconds before I remembered his situation. Facing off with the kidnappers’ spokesperson meant that he couldn’t vocally acknowledge anything I was saying. “Devlin, we’re going to extract Michel to somewhere safe. If possible, we’ll try to get him out of the Park entirely so that he can get medical attention.”
When he spoke, he wasn’t speaking to me or to the rest of the team. “We had a deal,” Devlin said. “When you told my bodyguard here what you had in mind, I showed up here willingly. But if you aren’t going to stick to your word, I don’t see why I should waste any more time here.”
“We hadn’t planned on your ‘bodyguard’ sharing our plans with you,” the lead kidnapper said. “But it doesn’t really change much on our end.”
“You keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ like you’re the one pulling the strings,” Devlin said. “I’d lay even odds that you don’t even know what your bosses actually have in mind.”
“I don’t.” The admission was frank and forthright. “With as much money as they offered me to bring you and your associates in, I didn’t really need to know, either.”
“Then you don’t really need the other one, either,” Devlin shot back. “Bring him out, make the trade, and then I can sit down with whoever is actually in charge.”
The lead kidnapper hemmed and hawed for a few moments before speaking again. “Where are the rest of your people?”
Devlin let out an obnoxious laugh. “My people? I’ve got people everywhere. You’re gonna have to be more specific than that.”
“From what I understand, you were asking questions that you shouldn’t have been asking and getting answers that you shouldn’t have been able to get,” the lead kidnapper said. “That’s what the deal was for: you and anyone who worked with you on your latest project.”
“Then that’s just me,” Devlin said. “I don’t bring people any further into my business than I have to and the investigation you’re talking about was just a mite too sensitive for me to have complete strangers crawling around inside of it.”
“I don’t buy it. We were given considerable research on the techniques used to uncover some of that information, along with a list of possible suspects. So, I’ll ask you this another way: where’s MaxHeadroom?”
Max gasped and it sounded like she’d made the sound directly into my ear.
“Max,” I said, temporarily blocking out the conversation between Devlin and the lead kidnapper, “this was always a possibility. We knew this. Someone matched your work with your screen name; that doesn’t mean they have any idea who you, personally, are.”
“You know how many people in the world can identify my work?” Max asked.
I didn’t have to answer that. While most of the remaining members of the Community – TannGate, Frizzle, and myself – would likely be able to ferret out the telltale markers of her hacks, we were all indisposed or in hiding. That left only one person with the skillset to pierce through dense layers of code and the motivation to go through the effort: the Mouse or, more accurately, his alter-ego as Caelum.
“It doesn’t change anything,” I said. It took effort to keep my voice steady as I contemplated the ramifications. At the same time, in my peripheral vision, I saw Barrett rip a length of fabric from Michel’s shirt, then prop him up just enough so that he could bind the wound. “We need to handle this, right now, and then worry about what comes next later.”
That was the kind of thing Devlin would say, if he were freely able to speak. Max’ breathing slowed noticeably in the comms, became less panicked and gaspy, so it must have worked.
The door into the room burst open, nearly banging against the wall as it swung out on its hinges. Mila, sucking down air and noticeably favoring her left leg, stood in the doorway. Her hair lay flat against her head, soaked through with sweat and a thicker substance that could very well have been someone else’s blood. Her eyes went from me, to Barrett, and then finally landed on Michel. She didn’t even seem to notice the dead body in the room’s corner.
“How long?” Mila asked.
“We got here maybe five minutes ago,” I said. “He could’ve been like this for longer, I don’t know.”
Barrett moved aside as Mila stepped over, ceding his position with only a single nod of acknowledgment. She quickly checked Michel’s body, hands flying professionally from his head, lingering around his chest, and then moving down to just above his waist.
“So?” I asked, when my anxiety grew too powerful to ignore.
“The blood loss is the problem,” Mila said. The tremor in her voice was slight, almost unnoticeable, but I’d been around her in distressing situations far too often. Even the most subtle difference in her flat, matter-of-fact delivery stood out like a beacon. “He’ll definitely need a doctor. A professional one, too.”
That would cause problems. We could hardly walk into the ER and declare that Michel, a foreign national who’d entered the country under a false Visa, had been injured while dealing with a group of kidnappers who’d taken one half of a Yakuza hit squad hostage through sheer force of arms.
“My father can help with that,” Max said, through the comms. “I mean…I don’t know for sure, but he’s got to know someone who’s either a doctor or at least knows one.”
“We still have to get him out of here,” Mila said.
Michel tried to say something, but his words came out in a wet gurgling sound. I placed a finger over his lips to keep him quiet.
“Between the three of us,” I said, “we can get him to an exit. You had to clear a path out to get here in the first place, didn’t you?”
“I did the best I could, under the circumstances.” Mila drew in a deep, steadying breath before continuing. “But I can’t know for sure how many people I missed. Judging from the resistance I encountered, there are probably at least five other kidnappers roaming around the premises.”
Sweat began to drip from my forehead into my eyes. It was hot, but the beads of perspiration had nothing to do with the temperature. I ran one hand from my forehead, up through my hair, and blew out a lungful of air. “We don’t have a lot of options, do we?”
“That’d be suicide,” Devlin said, quite clearly, through the comms. It took me a moment to realize that he wasn’t talking to me. “I might as well put a gun to my head and pull the trigger myself. I’d have about as much luck getting what you offered my employee here.”
“I don’t see where you have much of an option,” the lead kidnapper said. “You’re right; we don’t need the other twin. Akumi can collect her brother and run away with him to whatever corner of the world they choose; as far as me and my people are concerned, they’re not our business. What we do need is to take you, along with anyone who helped you get as far as you did, and bring you to whoever is paying the bills.”
“You aren’t the least bit curious?” Devlin asked. “You want to believe that you just took this job, no questions asked, and there isn’t a little voice in the back of your head wondering what it’s all about?”
For the first time, his question seemed to give the lead kidnapper pause. A few seconds passed before he answered. “In my experience,” he said, “anyone willing to pay what we’re getting paid is also willing to terminate any loose ends after the fact. I can’t speak for anyone else who decided to take the contract, but I’m not eager to become a loose end.”
They weren’t negotiating. If that had ever been the truth, the situation had long since changed. Devlin was stalling. What I was listening to told me that the lead kidnapper was both intelligent and circumspect. His men, hired hands or long-time allies, might lack his self-awareness, but the leader himself? He sounded like a man who remained aware of his surroundings and kept himself up to date on the state of play.
In other circumstances, that same self-awareness might have meant that the lead kidnapper could be reasoned with or paid off. Now? It meant that he was going to take Devlin, one way or another. Even if the unnamed “sources” weren’t named before the snatch-and-grab, it was better to get away with the most powerful player in Texas while possible, instead of trying to maneuver their way into a second opportunity.
If I could pick that up just through the comms, then Devlin would have come to that conclusion from body language and word choice a long time ago.
“Akumi won’t help him get out,” I said to Mila.
It wasn’t a question, but she looked up from Michel and shook her head. “No. Not if getting him out puts her brother at risk.”
Akumi wore the same earbuds as the rest of us. Just because she’d been silent didn’t mean that she hadn’t been listening in on the conversation, weighing when she might have to go into action.
“He’s here,” I said, willing myself to mean the words in a way that couldn’t be misinterpreted. “I know he is. The lead kidnapper’s too smart to leave him somewhere that the bulk of his men weren’t.”
“So?” Mila asked. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It means,” I said, “that Akumi needs to stay in place. Before she does something that actually does put her brother in danger.”
In her role as Devlin’s silent bodyguard/betrayer, Akumi couldn’t verbally respond to my plea and I couldn’t see her to know if she’d even acknowledged it. That said, I was fairly certain that I’d know almost immediately if she decided to act on her own accord. That we hadn’t heard the beginnings of a gun fight already was encouraging, but there was no guarantee that Akumi would wait indefinitely. She’d never struck me as a particularly patient person.
“Can you support him without me?” I asked Mila.
She raised an eyebrow.
“We can’t leave Devlin in there with the kidnapper,” I elaborated. “If they don’t knock him out and throw him into the trunk, they’ll just kill him for not being the Texan.”
“And since Akumi won’t protect him…”
“Someone has to get him out of there.” I wiped sweat away from my forehead. “But we can’t all be involved in that. You’re going to have to get Michel out of here. I’ll come up with a way to make an opening for Devlin.”
“Alone?” Mila asked.
“Not alone,” Barrett said. He walked over to the dead man in the corner and began to systematically pat him down. “Odds are these people have something to do with the ones who tried to kill me earlier. That’s the theory you guys have been working on this whole time, right?”
That wasn’t quite true, but it was simpler to assume that all of our varied enemies were really just different tools used by a single antagonist. It also kept me from succumbing to anxiety or fatigue while imagining an endless roster of criminals who had it out for us.
“Let’s go with that,” I said.
“Well, then it’s in my best interest to deal with them now, while they’re all in one place, isn’t it?” Barrett stood back up, holding a handgun in one hand and a reasonably large switchblade handle in the other.
“They aren’t all here,” Mila said. She’d already positioned herself beneath Michel’s arm. Though he was taller and heavier than her, she showed no signs of struggle with his mass. “Whoever is doing this, they’ve got more in reserve.”
“Then maybe I can give them an incentive to look for other employment.” Barrett checked the magazine and chamber of his newly acquired weapon. “Either way, I’m not going to let you go serve as a distraction all by yourself, Sarah.”
That’s what we’d allowed Devlin to do, although he had stringently insisted that he was the only possible fit for the role. At the time, I hadn’t felt good about the decision, but I also hadn’t felt guilty about it. Now, looking at Michel’s injured body and Mila’s worried expression, I couldn’t quite suppress a pang of shame. Here was Barrett, a man who had absolutely no skin in the game, willing to serve as backup for someone he barely knew. And here I was, stalling for time and contemplating whether or not my ex-husband, my friend, my partner was in mortal danger.
Mila shifted Michel’s weight so that he lay more evenly across her shoulders. “Sarah?”
The single word contained a wealth of questions, all of which I understood instinctively. “It’s fine,” I said. “CJ is out there, trying to draw my parents and Virginia away. If you can separate him from that group, he might be able to help.”
“And if not?”
“If not, we’ll have to catch up later.” I paused for effect and willed Mila to understand. I had to do this. “All of us will find you later.”
She lingered for a few precious moments. A moment passed when I wasn’t sure if she’d actually go or if she’d refuse to leave me, her charge, in such a dangerous situation. On the one hand, there was her contract to keep every member of the team safe and whole. On the other hand, there was Michel.
Mila looked away from me, in favor of Barrett. “If Sarah gets hurt,” she said, “understand that I’ll be coming for you.”
Barrett nodded absently. He was looking speculatively at the dead man, as if he might still possess some useful secrets or some bit of gear that we might be able to make us of.
“No,” Mila said. She snapped her fingers to get his attention and the sound was both crisp and brittle in the otherwise still air. “I need you to say it. Say that you understand.”
Barrett met her eyes. There was an intensity in his gaze that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t quite the same as Devlin’s, but it was close. The devil-may-care attitude, the charisma that could sell sand to a Bedouin, and the cocky surety that I couldn’t help but admire…it was all there in his eyes, plus more.
“I won’t let her get hurt,” Barrett said, deadly serious for once.
Mila considered him for a long while before turning back to me. “As soon as I’m sure Michel’s okay, I’m coming back. And Sarah?”
“I’m coming in loud. This was a bad idea to begin with and I’m not going to let it get any worse.”
I almost laughed. Worse? I was supposed to be wandering around the outskirts of the Creative Arts Building, monitoring radio frequencies and tolerating Max’ continued presence. Instead, a member of my team was injured, one was leaving to see to the first team member’s injuries, and the third – ostensibly our field leader, although both he and I would likely balk at the term – wasn’t in a position to call the shots. Worse was apparently very relative.
“We’ll take care of it,” I said.
Mila didn’t wait for an explicit invitation, although she did linger for just another few seconds to glare at Barrett. With some difficulty – though, not as much as the size difference between the two would indicate – she made her way to the door and, after pausing momentarily to listen for any approaching kidnappers, left the room through the door.
I opened my mouth to say something to Barrett, even though I had no clue what actually needed to be said, but the earbud popped twice in my ear before I could find any words.
“It’s just the two of us,” Max said, directly into my ear. “I…I didn’t know if you’d want anyone else to know.”
“Know what?” I asked. Barrett raised an eyebrow.
“Your…friend, I guess? Your hire? I don’t know what the deal is with the two of you, but the point is that I can’t reach him.”
My blood’s temperature instantly dropped and a pit opened up in my stomach.
“You can’t reach him?” I repeated. “What do you mean by that?”
“He was talking to the lead kidnapper,” Max said, “Then they stopped talking and there was some static…now he’s gone. I’ve got a weak signal, but no audio.”
Gone. He was gone.
“No,” I said out loud. “Not gone yet.”